PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron visited a multicultural, working-class suburb north of Paris on Thursday to woo leftist voters ahead of Sunday's presidential runoff vote against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen.
Reflecting the vote's wide international influence, the centrist Macron received support Thursday from the center-left leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal, who urged French voters to choose him over the nationalist Le Pen. Their appeals came only a day after imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny also spoke up about the French vote, alleging that Le Pen is too closely linked to Russian authorities to become France's next president amid Russia's war on Ukraine.
Macron, who led the first round of voting on April 10 that eliminated 10 other candidates, said he was taking nothing for granted and was seeking broader support.
“Nothing is final until the last minute,” Macron said Thursday, as recent opinion polls show a stabilized lead against his rival.
He said he chose to make one of his last campaign stops in a place that “is facing many difficulties” in the poorest region of mainland France, the Seine-Saint-Denis, where many residents are immigrants or have immigrant roots.
His visit came after the two rivals clashed bitterly in a televised debate Wednesday, with Macron saying that Le Pen's plan to ban Muslim women in France from wearing headscarves in public would trigger “civil war” in the country, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
“We must not get used to the rise of far-right ideas," Macron said Thursday in front of an ethnically diverse crowd in Saint-Denis.
Le Pen, meanwhile, used her last big campaign rally to accuse Macron of “unlimited arrogance” in the debate and in his presidency.
“I’ve had enough, like you, of this permanent disrespect,” she told voters in the northern city of Arras, in the struggling former industrial heartland of France where she enjoys broad support among working-class voters.
She framed Macron as soft on immigration and security and called his economic record — hurt by the pandemic and Ukraine war — “catastrophic.”
Macron did not have an easy task in Saint-Denis, where an overwhelming majority of voters had supported far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in third in the first round of voting and did not make the runoff. One woman told the 44-year-old leader that the presidential runoff, to her, amounting to choosing between “plague and cholera.”
Macron answered that he was ready change his platform to meet the needs of French voters, “including of people who did not vote for me” in the first round.
Pierre Flament, 75-year-old leftist voter, said he will pick Macron's ballot Sunday “with no pleasure.”
Calling Macron "the president of the rich,” he said he initially planned to vote blank. But he changed his mind in face of the “enormous risk” that Le Pen may win. Polls show the far-right figure has significantly narrowed the gap with Macron compared to their previous faceoff five years ago.
“If I vote Macron, I hope that we can start demonstrating the following day. We will have to take to the streets because Macron’s measures will be bad. But if Marine Le Pen wins, we might not even be allowed to demonstrate at all,” he said.
The Socialist mayor of Saint-Denis, along with 14 leftist mayors and the head of the Seine-Saint-Denis region, called this week for people to back Macron in the runoff.
“With Marine Le Pen as president of the Republic, Seine-Saint-Denis residents will be the first victims of discrimination,” they wrote, calling her platform “racist” and “a negation of democracy.”
Le Pen has sought to appeal to voters struggling with surging prices amid the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine. She says bringing down the cost of living would be her priority if elected.
But she has faced scrutiny over a 9 million euro ($9.7 million) loan that her party received in 2014 from the First Czech-Russian Bank and her 2017 visit to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the French presidential runoff that year.
In a column published Thursday in several European newspapers, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa wrote that Sunday’s vote is “critical for France and all and every one of us in Europe.”
“It’s the election between a democratic candidate who believes that France’s strength broadens in a powerful and autonomous European Union and an extreme-right candidate who openly sides with those who attack our freedom and democracy, values based on the French ideas of Enlightenment,” the joint comment said without mentioning Macron or Le Pen by name.
Social Democrat Scholz and Socialists Sánchez and Costa wrote that Europe “is facing a change of era” due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that “populists and the extreme right” are viewing Putin “as an ideological and political model, replicating his chauvinist ideas.”
“They have echoed his attacks on minorities and diversity and his goal of nationalist uniformity,” they said. “We must not forget that, no matter how much those politicians are now trying to distance themselves from the Russian aggressor."
Follow all AP stories on France's 2022 presidential election at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022
Associated Press Journalists Alexander Turnbull and Oleg Cetinic in Saint-Denis, Thomas Adamson and Catherine Gaschka in Paris, and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.